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I-35W bridge victims: Contractor should pay punitive damages

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Bent bridge
Wreckage of the I-35W bridge in downtown Minneapolis after it collapsed in August 2007.
MPR file photo/William Wilcoxen

Attorneys representing 134 people affected by the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in 2007 are asking a Hennepin County judge to require an engineering contractor to pay punitive damages for allegedly knowing the bridge could fail.

Judge Deborah Hedlund heard arguments Thursday in a lawsuit bridge collapse victims and their families brought against URS Corp., the company that had been hired by the state of Minnesota to evaluate the bridge's integrity.

Attorneys for the victims argued URS should pay punitive damages for professional negligence. The plaintiffs are already seeking actual damages.

  "There's no question they predicted this catastrophe," said attorney Chris Messerly, who was representing 103 of the plaintiffs.

Messerly cited an internal URS memo written by an engineer, saying they would "not calculate the capacity of all the connections because that is too much work."  

The memo also said that from a strength standpoint, "the original design does not meet modern design standards by a significant degree."

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  Another attorney for the plaintiffs, Richard Nygaard, said URS did a similar calculation for capacity on a bridge in Ohio, and recommended edge stiffeners on that bridge's gusset plates. 

Investigators found that the steel gusset plates on the I-35W bridge were only a half-inch thick instead of a full inch, and ruled that the gussets were the major factor in the collapse.

But George Eck, an attorney for URS, said engineers were not due to turn in design calculations on the bridge's integrity to the Minnesota Department of Transportation until December 28, 2007 -- five months after the bridge collapsed.

  "We were still working on that when the bridge collapsed," he said. 

  Eck denied that URS had any knowledge the bridge was on the verge of collapse and said engineers did not ignore any warning signs.

  "Everything we did, we did working with MnDOT. Everything we did was transparent," Eck said. "We drove over that bridge; we're Minnesotans too."

Hedlund heard more than an hour of arguments Thursday. She has 90 days to issue a ruling.